Heroin is an illegal drug that comes from the opium poppy plant. It belongs to a class of drugs known as opioids, also known as opiates. When misused, these drugs can be addictive.
Heroin has played a deadly role in the United States’ opioid crisis.
In 2017, the opioid epidemic was officially declared a public health emergency by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Heroin use can cause a range of physical, mental, and psychological effects. It is very addictive and can be deadly when used by itself or with other drugs.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a class of drugs that include illicit drugs like heroin, as well as legal opioids prescribed to treat severe and chronic pain.
When taken, these drugs can affect mood, sense of pain, behavior, and breathing rate.
Opioid drugs can be classified as:
- natural opiates
- synthetic opioids
- semi-synthetic opioids
Opioid drugs, also referred to as painkillers or narcotics, can be addictive when taken in any way other than prescribed.
Heroin is not a prescription drug. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies heroin as a drug with no acceptable use in the United States.
Common prescription opioids include:
- oxycodone (OxyContin)
- hydrocodone (Vicodin)
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Heroin is an illicit opioid. Illicit opioids are drugs that are illegally manufactured and distributed.
Fentanyl, a fully synthetic opioid, can also be illegally manufactured. Compared to heroin, fentanyl is much more potent and can be deadlier in small doses.
What Do Opioids Do?
Opioids are central nervous system depressants that interact with neurotransmitters like dopamine, a “feel good” brain chemical.
When taken, powerful opioids like heroin can depress the central nervous system and cause an intense rush of happiness and relaxation.
Opioids can also have the following side effects:
- reduced heart rate
- decreased blood pressure
- slow breathing
People who take opioids for more than a few weeks can develop physical dependence. This can cause withdrawal symptoms within hours of your last dose.
Dangers Of Opioid Use
Heroin, like other opioids, can be life-threatening when taken in large quantities or mixed with other drugs, including alcohol.
Overdose is a primary concern with heroin use. Heroin is involved in tens of thousands of drug overdose deaths in the United States each year.
If someone is showing signs of an opioid overdose, administering the drug naloxone (Narcan) can be life-saving. This can block the effects of heroin in the brain and reverse an overdose.
Health Risks Of Opioid Use Disorder
Chronic heroin use and addiction is associated with the following health risks:
- infectious diseases (e.g. hepatitis)
- kidney and liver disease
- respiratory distress
- brain damage
- mood disorders
Opioid abuse can affect mental health, physical health, and hurt relationships. Seeking substance abuse treatment can be life-saving.
Treatment For Heroin And Opioid Addiction
Recovering from heroin addiction is possible with effective medical and behavioral treatment.
Treatment for heroin addiction may involve:
- medication assisted treatment (e.g. methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone)
- behavioral therapy
- wraparound social services
Treatment for heroin addiction can be received through a rehab center or an outpatient substance abuse treatment provider.
If you or a loved one is using heroin, it’s never too soon to seek help. Call our helpline today to find heroin addiction treatment near you.
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—Heroin Overdose Data
- U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—Heroin DrugFacts
- U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—Heroin Research Report